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FUNNY PAGES (2022) review

August 28, 2022


written by: Owen Kline
produced by: Sebastian Bear-McClard, Oscar Boyson, Ronald Bronstein, David Duque-Estrada, Benny Safdie & Josh Safdie
directed by: Owen Kline
rated: R (for crude sexual content, graphic nudity, language and brief violent images)
runtime: 86 min.
U.S. release date: August 26, 2022 (Music Box Theatre, Chicago, IL and VOD)


I wouldn’t really say I felt seen in “Funny Pages”, but the restless aspirations of the protagonist and his place of work feel relatable. As a young artist having grown up frequenting various comic book shops, there is definitely a certain air of familiarity to the film, specifically the “regulars” who inhabit the local comic shop as if they live there. Considering the film’s authentic treatment of the characters and its cinema verité approach to the very specific locations and situations, one can assume writer/director Owen Kline feels this connection as well and his feature-length directorial debut, which premiered at the Cannes Directors’ Fortnight last May, winds up being a cringeworthy, dark comedy that is something special to behold.

The story Kline is telling revolves around 17 year-old Robert (Daniel Zolghadri, “Eighth Grade”), an aspiring cartoonist who decides to drop out of high school and seriously pursue a career in the comic books. Not the superhero genre of the art form, but the confessional comics of the underground scene that were popularized by the likes of R. Crumb, Daniel Clowes, and Harvey Pekar. The tipping point for this decision was the sudden demise of his supportive art teacher, Mr. Katano (Stephen Adly Guirgis), someone who had an artistic influence in his life.



Given a beater to drive around in from the owner of the local comic shop where he works, Robert leaves the comfort and security of his suburban Princeton, New Jersey, home where he lives with his parents and grandfather (a fun cameo from Ron Rifkin). Each step is the polar opposite of upward mobility, but all Robert cares about is getting away from the stifling environment his passive-aggressive parents, Lewis (Josh Pais) and Jennifer (Maria Dizzia) have created. Honestly, his parents aren’t that bad. They don’t hover or make demands, but they are understandably concerned by Robert’s impulsive decision to not just drop out of high school senior year, but also to move out. They know he barely has any money, yet they also know there’s no reasoning with him.

After all, Robert is not unlike many teens in that he’s kind of a self-focused jerk. Sometimes it’s unintentional, sometimes his impulsive words and actions communicate otherwise. This is evident in the way he often shrugs off his longtime friend Miles (Miles Emanuel, in a great understated performance), who’s also aspiring comic book artist and often acts as Robert’s Jiminy Cricket. However, the only influences Robert allows in his life seems to be the older men who he thinks can offer him some artistic guidance.

As he goes about his own “Catcher in the Rye” journey, Robert encounters all sorts of distinctive characters. The windowless subterranean apartment in Trenton, New Jersey that he’s able to afford is sublet by the fussy Barry (Michael Townsend Wright), who also happens to live in the cramped and disgusting space with his friend, Steven (Cleveland Thomas, Jr.). They are significantly older than Robert, but they are also the kind of subjects that will inspire his cartooning. While we may fear that Robert has entered the den of probable pedophiles or serial killers, Kline writes these two characters as just on-the-fringe of our own judgements of them based on visual expectations. The way in which Kline treats these strange characters seriously winds up making way for some awkward comedy, which essentially can be found throughout “Funny Pages”.

Soon enough Robert meets another man he thinks will be an ideal candidate to guide him in his artistic endeavors. While working at his new part-time job he surprisingly landed – as an aide to public defender, Cheryl (a delightful Marcia DeBonis) – he meets Wallace (a pitch-perfect Matthew Maher) a squirrely-eyed client whose volatile temper found him recently instigating an altercation at the local Rite Aid pharmacy. As Cheryl goes over job history with Wallace, Robert lights up internally when he learns that Wallace used to work for Image Comics years ago.

To Robert, this means that Wallace is a legitimate comic book professional, which is very far removed from where Wallace actually is in life. Even though he finds out Wallace was just a color separator for a hot minute for the independent comic company, Robert nevertheless is determined to glean whatever he can from Wallace, seeing him as a “way in” to a dream career. He pesters and presses Wallace for tips on comic book draftsmanship, to the point in which the reluctant recluse gives in with the promise of some cash for his supposed artistic knowledge. Things don’t exactly turn out the way Robert envisions, which we see unfold during a pharmacy mishap (look for a great cameo from Louis Lasser – yes, Mary Hartman herself, as a wheel-chair bound customer who just wants a Percocet) and when he invites Wallace over to his parents house for a Christmas pancake breakfast, unbeknownst to his parents, and that all results in a sobering downward spiral for Robert. Like everything in “Funny Pages”, much of what happens is Robert’s fault, who is bound to learn things the hard way.



Kline is best known as an actor, playing the younger of two sons in Noah Baumbach’s “The Squid and the Whale” back in 2005 and perhaps moreso as the son of actors Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates. Growing up in New York City and being a cartoonist himself, he has likely seen his share of run-down comic shops and most of what we see in “Funny Pages” is likely based on his own experiences, encounters, or people he knows. Of course, these are assumptions, but the authenticity of the people, places, and situations feel too real to be stranger than fiction.

The distinct visuals of “Funny Pages” accentuate the story’s authentic look and that must be credited to Kline’s cinematographers, Hunter Zimny and Sean Price Williams. Williams has experience shooting many shorts and features, having lensed the last four features from Alex Cross Perry, as well as “Good Time” and “Heaven Knows What” from the Safdie brothers (the latter serve as producers on this film, as does filmmaker Ronald Bronstein, who wrote and directed 2007’s “Frownland” – if you know of these films, you can see the influence of them here), he knows how to make the most out of 16mm, establishing a knowing balance of urgency and observance for the stories he shoots. Speaking of the Safdie brothers, “Funny Pages” could easily be a cousin or spinoff from the worlds those directors created in their films.

The film is ultimately about the need for mentorship, specifically for a young artist to be seen, appreciated, and guided. Robert’s cartooning is really good, but he doesn’t seem to believe that and instead is on a constant search from someone else, hopefully one who knows the comic book industry (the indie scene, not the mainstream with their spandex), to provide some guidance…a way in to the comics industry.

“Funny Pages” essentially feels like what would happen if we mixed the filmography of Todd Solonz and Kevin Smith in a blender. With the uncanny fringe characters populating the story and an understanding of underground comics, along with an accurate depiction of the local comic shop scene, Kline has lovingly offered an unsentimental look at real people in all its cringey glory.




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